At age 24, Utah-born musician Justin Utley had never kissed anyone. He'd never tasted alcohol, or for that matter, coffee or tea. He'd lived his whole life as a devout Mormon-regularly attending temple, serving on a two-year mission, and playing "firesides" up and down the West Coast. He hoped his devotion would put an end to those impure thoughts. Those impure, gay thoughts. But when the college roommate he had fooled around with came out, Utley panicked. And on the advice of his Bishop, he enrolled into Evergreen, a program for curing "same-sex attraction."
Utley initially felt relieved to find help among others like himself - until he realized Evergreen was actually the perfect closeted Mormon cruising ground. Between their weekly group sessions, attendees would jerk-off together. The program treats homosexuality like a mental illness, and over time Utley's program-appointed therapist convinced him that he'd been molested as a child (something Utley says never happened). Finally, after a year at Evergreen, he met his first boyfriend, Brent, and left Evergreen forever, en route to happily ever after.
Six months later, Brent died of a heart attack.
Back to his Bishop for comfort, Utley was told God had allowed Brent to die because He disapproved of same-sex relationships. And at that moment, Utley, who'd spent his entire life serving and defending his faith, realized the church would never do the same for him. He submitted a formal resignation asking for his name to be removed from every church roster, roll book, and attendance sheet. This place didn't deserve his name.
Immediately afterward, Utley began working on Runaway, a 2005 solo record influenced by his two years playing in Christian rock band. Though Utley says he best expresses himself with folky acoustic rock, it's unfortunate he's so married to it's conventions. Far from catharsis, his songs end up sounding the same with vague lyrics that never specifically mention his personal experiences. For example, in "Let Me Go" he sings, "I was never yours and you were never mine... I gave you my reasons, and I gave you my heart. I guess you never understood that part." He could be speaking about the Mormon church, a parent, or ex-lover. Even his most revealing song, "Shades of Gray" (a song he wrote while still at Evergreen), has angry and heart-aching lyrics that his voice fails to match.
"They say, 'Ex-Mormons can leave the church, but they can never leave it alone.' But I think it's the church that doesn't leave ex-Mormons alone ... especially with things like Prop 8," Utley says.
He moved to New York City in 2005, and that's where the activism kicked in. The Prop 8 ballot in California energized him to start making phone calls against the amendment, volunteering for AIDS walks, and playing guitar at PRIDE festivals nationwide. He's currently developing his second album and rehearsing to play the lead in Our Country, a Hedwig-style musical comedy about an outed country rock star (based on Kenny Chesney).
"Trying to change the Mormon Church from inside of Utah is like trying to take on the Catholic Church from Rome," Utley said. "The [federal] government had to force Utah to stop practicing polygamy. The government had to pass laws to allow interracial marriage. [In Utah,] the force of change always comes from outside. Instead of trying to change Utah from within, I'm trying to change the world around it."